Graphic designers – awkward prima donnas, or the nicest people you will ever work with?

To read some online sources, you could be forgiven for thinking that graphic designers are bad tempered, argumentative prima donnas, with little ability to engage with anyone outside of their field. 

Such narratives are advanced through online memes and numerous websites devoted to lists of things that supposedly ‘trigger’ graphic designers, often under variations of the banner “things You Should Never Say to a Graphic Designer” (Google 2020) (type that into Google to see what I mean). On the other hand, websites such as ‘Clients from Hell’ and ‘The Oatmeal’ can be seen as trying to redress that balance, by portraying graphic designers’ perspectives. However, these largely reinforce alternate stereotypes, of put-upon graphic designers dealing with ‘ignorant’ stakeholders (often personified in a reductionist sense simply as ‘clients’). 

That professional graphic designers are often perceived to have problematic relationships with stakeholders is hardly a new nor unique observation within the creative industry. However, a dearth of academic research on relationships between graphic designers and stakeholders necessitates drawing from a wider design discourse. For example, some research focuses on issues around managerially imposed design constraints, such as balancing designers’ creativity alongside budgets and client requirements (Jacobs 2017), while others suggest that creative conflict can arise when stakeholders lack experience of designers or design itself (Banks et al. 2002; Holzmann & Golan 2016). 

Problematic interactions between designers and stakeholders are sometimes acknowledged within industry publications and professional design bodies, sometimes to the degree that they might need to be addressed with professional development. Other literature advises graphic designers on how to interact with stakeholders for the optimum results. For example, a chapter in ‘When Designers and Stakeholders Collide’ urges designers to communicate and build trust with stakeholders (Greever 2015), while Cathy Fishel advises designers to promote their expertise and explain their processes to stakeholders (2008). All good advice, perhaps. 

Nevertheless, with some <ahem> exceptions (Meron 2019), professional sources have scarce research to draw on, with few moving beyond acknowledging more acute and overt aspects of designer–stakeholder relations. The apparent absence of academic research on the topic results in the underlying causes of designer–stakeholder friction remaining unidentified, continually re-emerging over the years from print design, to online, to interactive design environments.

As ever, the lack of research can be ascribed to graphic design seeming to have an ‘aversion to theory’ (Poynor 2003 p10), lacking an academic discourse (Laurel 2003) and having scarce theoretical reflection (Harland 2011). This is further hampered by graphic designers’ reluctance (even resistance) towards being the subjects of research (Dorland 2017; Roberts et al. 2015). The irony is not lost that this resistance tends to support the opening narratives of this article. 

However, these narratives largely stand at odds with the increasing penchant within academia to focus on co-design, participatory design and other allied terms related to designer–stakeholder collaboration. Indeed, in some corners of academia devotion to such approaches appears to have almost approached a level of fetishisation, bearing little resemblance to most industry reality (aside, perhaps, in limited form within sections of the public sector). 

Thus, it is in the intersection between industry and academia that more research needs to be done, as well as theoretical and practical bridges built. In doing so, it may be possible to begin to understand and address the realities of the professional practice and, in turn, leave behind unhelpful and entrenched narratives of graphic design as a tempestuous creatively conflictual industry.

Banks, M, Calvey, D, Owen, J & Russell, D 2002, ‘Where the Art is: Defining and Managing Creativity in New Media SMEs’, Creativity and Innovation Management, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 255-264. doi: 10.1111/1467-8691.00257

Dorland, A ‘The View From The Studio: Design Ethnography and Organizational Cultures.’, pp. 232-246. doi: 10.1111/1559-8918.2017.01150

Fishel, C 2008, In-House Design in Practice; Real-world solutions for graphic designers, FW Publications, Georgetown, Ontario, Canada.

Google 2020, Things You Should Never Say to a Graphic Designer, Google,.

Greever, T 2015, Articulating Design Decisions: Communicate with Stakeholders, Keep Your Sanity, and Deliver the Best User Experience, O’Reilly Media Inc., Sebastopol, CA.

Harland, R 2011, ‘The Dimensions of Graphic Design and Its Spheres of Influence’, Design Issues, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 21-34.

Clients From Hell, < >.

Holzmann, V & Golan, J 2016, ‘Leadership to Creativity and Management of Innovation? The Case of the “Innovation Club” in a Production Company’, American Journal of Industrial and Business Management, vol. 6, pp. 60-71. doi: 10.4236/ajibm.2016.61005

Jacobs, J 2017, ‘Managing the Creative Process within Graphic Design Firms: A Literature Review’, Dialectic, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 155-178.

Laurel, B 2003, Design Research: Methods and Perspectives, MIT Press.

Meron, Y 2019, Strangely familiar: revisiting graphic designers’ perceptions of their relationships with stakeholders, RMIT University.

The Oatmeal, ‘How a Web Design Goes Straight to Hell’. < >

Poynor, R 2003, No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism, Laurence King Publishing Ltd., London, UK.

Roberts, L, Wright, R & Price, J 2015, Graphic Designers Surveyed, GraphicDesign&, London, UK.